HVAC Installation and the Weather

HVAC Installation and the Weather
Joshua Rodriguez
Installation Manager

I am the Install manager at Fire & Ice, since 2017. I have spent 28 years in this business and have experienced nearly every aspect of HVAC from Industrial, commercial, and residential buildings. From design, install, service, or sales, if it moves air, I’ve worked on it.

About This Article

The weather can be cruel to your home, and it can also affect the installation or performance of your air conditioner, heat pump or furnace. We walk through some common weather concerns in HVAC.

My worst experience wasn’t actually in the rain, even though rain can be inconvenient for HVAC installation. It was in an attic. It was about 95 degrees outside, which meant it was probably 110 degrees in the attic. And it was humid. That’s a terrible combination.

It felt like it was raining due to how much sweat was pouring down my face. The worst isn’t how wet you are. The worst is how it gets into your eyes. Dirt and salt mix and make it impossible to keep your eyes focused for very long. My eyes water up just thinking about it.

Still, we got the job done. And that’s the important part.

HVAC installation happens rain or shine, snow or sleet, and the job must always go on. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t considerations for both the homeowner and the HVAC installer when it comes to weather and other elemental forces that can affect HVAC equipment.

Today we’re going to look at various weather-related hazards that can throw a wrench into your plans (or some rain into your wrench). We’re also going to discuss seasonal considerations, so-called “acts of God” that can damage a system, and what both installers and homeowners can do to mitigate such risks.

By the end, you’ll have a better understanding of HVAC installation and will have a few key takeaways for your own home.

Furnace in extreme heat.

Weather Hazards in HVAC Installation

The first thing that an installer should have is a proper way to store and protect any potentially sensitive equipment. If we get wet during the installation, it’s not a big deal. But if certain tools get wet, it can be a problem.

Every Fire & Ice installation team comes equipped with a large tent for covering tools and equipment, large umbrellas that can cover an outdoor air conditioner or heat pump for when work is being performed on it, and multiple shoe coverings to avoid excess dirt or mud being tracked into the home.

This is important not just because it’s easier to work when everything is dry, but also because some of the equipment can be sensitive to moisture. Outdoor units are designed to handle the elements, but during an installation, for example, we’re connecting electrical wiring that should not get wet even with the power turned off at the home’s breaker.

The refrigeration line is another area that should remain free of contaminants, so it’s important to limit exposure. This is true in all circumstances, but particularly so when the elements complicate matters.

When an HVAC Install Has to Stop

If it’s pouring rain, to the point where even large umbrellas and tents aren’t cutting it, we’ll sometimes put an installation on hold. Similarly, for safety reasons, a lightning storm can temporarily halt installation.

In these instances, we can often plan around the weather to still complete work in a timely fashion. While there’s a process that needs to be followed in HVAC installation, there are always going to be indoor and outdoor portions of the process. We’ll often try to “time” the weather so that we complete indoor work during the worst of the day’s weather.

For some installers that don’t come prepared with the proper protective items, these delays can (or at least should be!) more frequent. That said, a routine installation can occur in most weather conditions, making these cases an exception.

Seasonal HVAC Considerations

We often get asked about air conditioning installation in the wintertime. This is completely possible, and often has the added benefit of preparing you for the spring and summer before the inevitable rush of installations in the spring. If you wait until the first hot week of the year to call about a new air conditioner installation, you could be waiting weeks depending on the contractor’s workload.

There are some items to consider with winter installs, though.

The commissioning, or testing process, for air conditioning is technically incomplete without testing in warmer temperatures. That said, some commissioning processes can be completed, like making sure there’s a call for operation when it’s turned on, and voltage levels on the equipment.

Every manufacturer has specifications for installing A/C in the winter, and it’s a common practice. With a thorough installation process, there’s no reason your machine can’t run smoothly. We only ask that the customer ensure that everything is running as expected when they fire it up for the first time in the spring. Regular tune-ups and maintenance checks will ensure proper pressure levels moving forward, so there’s very little to be concerned about if you’re maintaining your system throughout the year.

If the weather is very cold (think sub-zero temperatures), you also have to be more careful when dealing with things like siding, which can crack with as little as adding a screw. A good HVAC company will be aware of these risks and prepare properly to avoid damage.

Air conditioning unit in the rain.

Humidity, Flooding & Water Damage

Rain is probably the worst overall for an installation. Snow is easy. Even if you lack tents and tarps to protect equipment, in the snow you can fashion a makeshift igloo to protect any potentially sensitive tools. But in the rain, if you’re not careful, everything can get wet.

So you’re trying to protect a homeowner’s lawn, which is trickier in the rain, and trying to avoid slipping while working.

The importance of having tents and umbrellas becomes even more important when you realize that things like digital pressure gauges need to be dry to function properly.

To be clear, it’s entirely possible to have a safe, quality installation in the rain. But it takes preparation.

Flooding Concerns

Many basements will have to deal with excessive moisture. This is something systems are built to handle. However, if a basement becomes flooded, it’s important to know what to look for.

An HVAC furnace in a home will typically be “upflow.” Meaning, it will draw air upward through the equipment. In these systems, the blower motor will be located near the bottom of the unit. Not far from the bottom you’ll also often find control wiring that connects the equipment to the home’s thermostat.

A few inches of flooding generally won’t be a problem. Furnaces are generally installed on a pad or block that elevates it off of the concrete floor. Even without this, the blower motor is usually housed a few inches above the blower wheel that circulates air. A few inches above that, you’ll usually find the control board.

In practice, what this means is that you’re usually safe with up to about five inches of water. Beyond that, you could be at risk for flooding the motor or control board. This type of damage will not always be covered under warranty, and replacing either part can cost $500-1,000+ in many cases.

The control board also has electricity going to it at all times. As we all know, water and electricity don’t mix well (or rather, they mix too well!), so there are potential safety concerns if it goes untended.

If your basement is at risk of flooding, it’s best to confirm these details with your HVAC providers, since different models can present new considerations.

And what’s the solution? Waterproofing your basement is one method. Another is to have a whole-home dehumidifier. Many of these can remove up to 95 pints of water per day, which greatly reduces flooding risk.

RELATED: Is a Whole-Home Dehumidifier Right for Me?

What Does and Doesn’t Matter

Equipment is built to withstand the elements. We’ve talked a lot about weather concerns, but once a system is installed properly, it can take a lot.

Rust is one example. You usually won’t see rust form for the first 10 years or so of the outdoor unit. But even once it begins to rust, the effects are often merely cosmetic. You could lose a screw here or there, and that could have some downstream effects on system performance, but this is rare. More often, it won’t affect performance at all.

Wind and rain is another example. HVAC wind baffles do exist to protect from high winds, but these are most often used in commercial applications, not residential. Here in Columbus, OH, you don’t see them often, and even less so in residential settings.

Some homeowners think that planting around their outdoor unit can provide a buffer from the elements. Again, plants are going to be a cosmetic enhancement, but aren’t tied to performance. The bigger fear is actually that the plants become overgrown and inhibit the unit’s performance by getting caught in the fan or coils. While the necessary clearances can vary depending on make and model, a good rule of thumb is to keep shrubbery 12 inches away from an outdoor unit to ensure proper airflow.

If you’ve ever seen ice bubbles on air conditioning lines, this is not caused by the elements. Rather, it’s caused by something internal to the system. The problem could be related to airflow or refrigerant pressure, but you shouldn’t ever see ice buildup from cold external temperatures. Some outdoor heat pumps will frost up, but this is normal. They have a defrost cycle to account for this phenomenon.

Some outdoor air conditioners and heat pumps can even be waxed. This will make them shiny and polished, but again won’t affect performance.

All of these are things that a homeowner can do if they’re interested, but don’t need to be concerned about regarding their HVAC efficiency and longevity.

Protecting Your HVAC Investment

Weather isn’t something we can control. So what can you do?

The first, and most important, is to have regular maintenance on your system from a licensed HVAC professional. Any of the concerns mentioned, and others not covered here, will be handled by a good technician.

In terms of specific weather-related precautions, there are a few things that can help:

  1. Some brands have add-on accessories to protect outdoor units further. The Trane Weatherguard is one example. Importantly, this does not come with all models. While potentially useful, it’s also not necessary in many cases.
  2. Many modern thermostats have built-in humidity controls, which can help with excessive moisture.
  3. While leaves and sticks in an outdoor unit generally aren’t a big concern, many homeowners will put a board over the outdoor fan to protect it during the winter months. Importantly, you should not cover your outdoor unit with a plastic cover. These create vacuums that can actually increase the moisture around the unit to dangerous levels.
  4. Ensure that your HVAC company has proper protective equipment to ensure a quality installation in any environment or weather conditions.

The bottom line is that there’s only so much we can do about the weather. The good news is that HVAC technology was built with this in mind, so the health of your system is most impacted by how you take care of it in any season.

Want to know what else you should expect from an HVAC company? Check out our HVAC Contractor Checklist to see the 10 questions you should be asking every contractor before choosing one that’s right for you.

HVAC Contractor Checklist
 

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